Imagine traveling deep into East Germany to the city of Leipzig, and entering the St. Thomas Church, where Johann Sebastian Bach wrote some of his greatest organ compositions more than 200 years ago. James Welch did that--and one better.
Last year, he sat down and played the organ in that historic church. “Yes, it was a spiritual experience,” said Welch, a music teacher at UC Santa Barbara. “But it was more than that. It altered my view of playing Bach’s music.”
Welch, 35, will present a Bach program on the Hradetzky Baroque organ at 7 tonight at UC Irvine. As he walks on-stage, he’ll be taking a bit of that East German experience with him.
“I went with a group of organists, and we did the whole Bach pilgrimage: Coethen, Weimar, Leipzig. Playing on those wonderful old instruments showed us that those particular combinations of stops Bach suggested do work. Now we know why he indicated them.
“Now we have this sound in our ears that we can try and duplicate.”
The St. Thomas organ is a reconstruction from the original--destroyed with almost everything else in Leipzig during World War II. “But we traveled to some of the small towns where the organs are intact,” Welch said. “You sit down and play a Silbermann instrument and you hear those voicings you don’t hear anywhere else.
“A lot of organ builders today are saying they are creating authentic copies, but they haven’t copied them at all.
“Now don’t get me wrong,” Welch quickly added. “I’m not a purist. I’m incredibly moderate. The sound of those (original) instruments is just so pleasing--not harsh and tinny and high-pitched, as some think a Baroque organ should sound.”
In addition to opening Welch’s ears, the East German experience also helped him understand why Bach never really hit the big time back then.
“Leipzig was not Paris, Berlin, London,” he said. “None of those provincial East German cities were--or are. You were famous in Weimar? Big deal!”
By example, Welch pointed to a contemporary of Bach’s who did make it big: George Frederick Handel. “Bach didn’t write operas, and that was his problem. But Handel did. Back then, opera was everything. You want to have a good time? Write opera. Handel went to Italy to learn how, then he went to London to become famous.”
And Bach? “He stayed at home with his extended family, and wrote all those staid cantatas. He didn’t think he was all that great. He was just doing his job.”
For his Irvine recital, Welch will present a cross section of Bach’s organ works: a toccata and fugue, a prelude and fugue, a trio sonata, a Vivaldi transcription and a sampling of chorale-preludes, including three of the 33 early ones recently authenticated at Yale.
The organist described the latter as “curious pieces.”
“They sound like improvisations. You can tell this is early Bach--if it is Bach. I’m not so sure. These are not like the finely-crafted later works. Usually, he will exhaust one idea thoroughly in each piece. But here, he goes from one to the other. A lot of the preludes are charming, though.”
So what’s the attraction, then? “Just finding any Bach is big news,” Welch said. Musicologists are forever fascinated with Bach, just like the public. “Audiences really come out of the woodwork to hear his music.”
The reason, he noted, is simple: “Bach was the best.”